Jonah Flees

adapted from sermon preached at PCC Evening Worship Service on 22 July 2012

The book of Jonah is a familiar one to many of us, especially the children. The first thing that often comes to mind when we think of Jonah is that big fish that he was in for three days and three nights. But the big fish in the book of Jonah is but one of the supporting casts or actors. In fact, Jonah himself is not the main character, as we often think. The main character in this book is really the LORD God Himself. We see this in the very first verse, “Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying….

It is the word of the LORD that kicks off this book. The word of the LORD comes to Jonah the son of Amittai.

This is not the first time that Jonah received a word from God. Earlier, he had been given the privilege of announcing God’s word to his own people. We read of that in 2 Kings 14:24-27.

“And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD: he departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher. For the LORD saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter: for there was not any shut up, nor any left, nor any helper for Israel. And the LORD said not that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven: but he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.”

Jeroboam II, who reigned over the northern kingdom from 783-743 B.C., was an evil king. He departed not from all the sins of Jeroboam the first, who lived over a century and a half before him.

Nevertheless, through Jonah, God sent a word of mercy and grace to Israel. The land of Israel would be restored and expanded back to what it was during the time of Solomon. And this blessing would come to them not because they deserved it but because God was gracious and compassionate.

Sadly though, the people in the northern kingdom did not respond rightly to God’s word. Instead of being grateful to the Lord for His mercy, and turning away from their wicked ways, they continued in their evil ways. The Lord would later send His Word of judgment and condemnation to Israel through other prophets. But for now, He sends word again to Jonah the son of Amittai. What word would it be this time?

We read in verse 2, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.”

God’s word to Jonah was that he was to arise and go to Nineveh and preach against the wickedness of that great city. This was a great commission indeed but this must also have come as a great shock to Jonah. What? Not Nazareth or Naphtali but Nineveh!

Nineveh was located almost 800km from Israel right at the heart of the Assyrian Empire on the eastern bank of the river Tigris, somewhere in modern Iraq. It is described as a great city because it was great in size, in power and in military might. Its population was five times that of Jerusalem. From a human point of view, it was a great city indeed.

But from God’s point of view, it was also a city of great wickedness. And God was sending His prophet there to cry or preach against it.

It’s true that every sin is abhorrent and distasteful in God’s sight but there are times when the sin is so great and so offensive that God is especially angry with it. So it was with Nineveh. Archaeology has confirmed the biblical witness to the great wickedness of the Assyrians. They were well known in the ancient world for brutality and cruelty. Tearing off the lips and hands of victims, flaying victims alive, and making great piles of their skulls and so on.  

Like Sodom, the city of Nineveh was ripe for judgment. But unlike Sodom, God would not destroy Nineveh without first sending His prophet to warn them of the coming judgment. In His sovereignty, God was going to deal differently with Nineveh as He had done with other Gentile nations and kingdoms in the past.

Verse 3, “But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”

Most commentators believe that Tarshish was located in Spain, which was way out in the west, and in the direct opposite direction of Nineveh, which was in the East.

God told him, in verse 2, to arise and go to Nineveh. In verse 3, Jonah immediately arises but he heads off somewhere else. He responds immediately to God’s word but he responds in the totally opposite direction.

I’ll like to highlight several interesting things about verse 3.

Firstly, notice how in this one verse, the word Tarshish appears three times. This threefold repetition of the word serves to clearly indicate to the reader that Jonah is not going to Nineveh. No, not Nineveh but Tarshish is where the prophet was headed.

But secondly, the whole of verse 3 is constructed in such a way that its emphasis falls on Jonah’s flight to Tarshish. This verse has a very interesting structure if you look at it carefully. There are seven parts to the verse. The first part corresponds to the seventh, the second to the sixth, the third to the fifth, and the fourth part stands alone right in the center. 

1 But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD,

2 and went down to Joppa;

3 and he found a ship

4 going to Tarshish:

5 so he paid the fare thereof,

6 and went down into it (ship),

7 to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.

The heart and center of the verse was a statement about Jonah’s disobedience. Jonah was going to Tarshish.

Thirdly, notice that Jonah went down to Joppa in order to catch a ship to Tarshish. In Acts chapter 10, the apostle Peter was in Joppa staying in the house of a man named Simon the Tanner when he received that remarkable vision from God showing him all manner of unclean beasts and birds and instructing him to eat them. Shortly after that, Peter received an invitation from the Gentile Centurion Cornelius to come to his home up in Caesarea to preach to them there. Peter agreed and on the next day, he went together with some brethren from Joppa. That visit marks the beginning of the Gentile church.

What a contrast between Jonah and Peter! Jonah was called by God to go to a Gentile city to preach there but he refused. Instead, he went to Joppa to catch a ship going in the opposite direction. Peter, on the other hand, was called by God to go to a Gentile home to preach the gospel and he obeyed. And from Joppa, the very same place where Jonah went to in his disobedience, Peter launched out on one of the most important journeys in the history of the early church.

Fourthly, notice that Jonah’s flight to Tarshish was a flight from the presence of the LORD. Twice, this is mentioned – once at the beginning and once at the end of the verse. Jonah was not merely taking a trip anywhere. He was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, and that is something we must never do. Furthermore, what a foolish thing to do! Surely Jonah knew better than that. Surely he knew that was impossible. Surely he was well acquainted with Psalm 139 verses 7-10, which David wrote centuries ago,

“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”

Indeed, Jonah himself would later tell the sailors that the God whom he fears is the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land, and that he was fleeing from His presence. It was not a lack of knowledge concerning the omnipresence and omnipotence of God that led Jonah to do what he did. Rather, it was a sinful, rebellious and unbelieving heart that led Jonah to flee. O how sin can cloud our minds and lead us to do foolish things!

Fifthly, notice how God sovereignly allowed Jonah to flee from His presence for a while. From Jonah’s point of view, it was providential that the moment he arrived in Joppa, he was able to find a ship that was just about ready to depart for Tarshish, and it even had an empty seat on board for him. And not only that, but Jonah had sufficient money on hand to afford the fare, which must have been pretty substantial considering the distance to Tarshish. Everything had worked out well for Jonah thus far. And now he could go down into his cabin and have a good sleep, which he did. He was now well on his way to Tarshish.

Isn’t it true that sometimes when everything seems to be going on nicely and smoothly for us, we jump to the wrong conclusion that God’s providence must be leading us in the way that we should go? But as we see from the story of Jonah that that may not always be so. We need something more than just circumstances. We need the word of God.

Jonah disobeyed God’s word and it didn’t matter that everything appeared to be going well for him. He was in the wrong place and going in the wrong way. And the reality of that fact would hit him very soon…

— Linus Chua

…to be Continued